As Miremba enters her classroom in the morning, little does she know that the walls of the one place that should help her secure a better future are, in fact, poisoning it. As she playfully chips the hallway paint before going into class, she exposes herself, and her fellow schoolmates, to the irreversible toxic effects of lead.
Years after lead in paint and petrol was banned in many parts of world, this toxic, heavy metal continues to pose a threat to people’s health as well as the environment – particularly in developing countries, where the major source of lead exposure to children is from paint.
Lead poisoning has wide-ranging consequences. Childhood lead poisoning, including during pregnancy, can have lifelong health consequences including learning disabilities, anemia, disorders in visual and spatial coordination, and impaired language skills. It also poses a severe threat to adults in painting or building demolition professions.
Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems. “There is no known safe level of lead exposure. Lead is a serious contributor to environmental pollution that accounts for a quarter of the global burden of disease. Health impacts of lead cause significant economic costs to countries,” says Jacob Duer, Chief of the Chemicals and Health Branch of the Economy Division at UN Environment.
Lead can be found in decorative paint for interiors and exteriors of homes, schools, public and commercial buildings, as well as on toys, furniture and playgrounds. After the application of lead paint, weathering, peeling or chipping of the paint releases lead particles into dust and soil in and around these locations.
Lead-contaminated soil and dust are easily ingested and absorbed, particularly by young children when they play on the floor or outdoors, and when they put their hands or other objects in their mouths. Children also ingest lead if they mouth and chew toys painted with lead paint. Both children and adults can be exposed to lead in paint chips and dust during the removal of old lead paint.
Children who live in low- and middle-income countries, where there are few or no governmental controls on lead in paint, are disproportionately affected.
The International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), a group of environmental health charities, notes that as people earn more, they begin to decorate their houses – unfortunately often with lead paint. Last year, the network published a review of studies of paints sold in developing countries. The report found that a majority of decorative paints in 35 of the 55 countries included in the study contained high lead levels, and in 22 out of 55 countries, more than 25 per cent of decorative paints contained dangerously high lead levels.
Lead paint laws are needed to reduce lead exposure globally. It is significantly more cost-effective to ban new sources of lead paint and promote lead-free alternatives, than to remediate contaminated homes, schools and playgrounds. Laws, regulations or enforceable standards are needed in every country to stop the manufacture, import and sale of lead-containing paint.
“Sadly, lead poisoning is still a major health threat for kids around the world, putting at risk the development of their full intellectual and physical capacities. As of today, only 69 countries have adopted lead paint laws. The World Health Organization has 194 Member States. We call on each and every country to develop their laws by 2020,” says Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organization.
“Let’s act urgently and provide the best possible future to our children. They are the future of our countries’ economies and our planet,” she says.
The private sector’s vital role in eliminating lead in paint
While government agencies must work with key stakeholders to develop lead paint laws and education programmes, the private sector must also take a leading role by offering non-toxic alternatives to lead paint.
Indeed, many companies around the world are listening to consumers and bringing lead-free alternatives to the market.
“In this age of social media, the association of a paint brand with lead poisoning of children could cause quick and severe damage to a company’s most important asset – its brand equity,” says Johnson Ongking of Pacific Paint (Boysen) in the Philippines, whose four paint brands were amongst the first in the world to achieve Lead Safe Paint Certification.
Moreover, the cost of the switchover is not as high as some presume. “Paint manufacturers in many countries have told us that the cost of replacing lead in paint is very low and can easily be done without raising product prices,” says Russian scientist Olga Speranskaya, a 2011 winner of the UN Environment Champion of the Earth award.
The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint
The Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint is a voluntary partnership formed by UN Environment and the World Health Organization to prevent exposure to lead, by promoting the phase-out of paints containing lead.
The Alliance has set a goal for every country to establish laws to phase out the manufacture and sale of paints containing lead by 2020.
The Alliance has launched a Model Law and Guidance for Regulating Lead Paint to establishing laws to control the use of lead in paint. The Alliance has also released a global status report regarding the existence of laws and regulations that establish legal limits on lead in paint for over 125 countries.
International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week
International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week is an initiative of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, a partnership with a joint Secretariat in UN Environment and WHO, chaired by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
From 21 to 27 October 2018, the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week will provide an opportunity for organizations and institutions around the world to focus attention on lead. The International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week takes place every year. Last year, over 67 events took place in 44 countries. The theme of 2018’s week is the need for individuals, civil society organizations, industry and governments to work together to ban lead paint.
Every year the Lead Paint Alliance provides resources to help campaigners plan events during the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, including a campaign resource package, customizable posters, a fact sheet, infographics, campaign icons, video messages, and sample social media messages. All materials are available in English, and most are also available in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish.
You can find out what others are doing and use materials for your own events through the WHO campaign webpage. If you are planning a campaign, please share information by registering your event on the WHO webpage. Follow the campaign on twitter #ILPPW2018 #BanLeadPaint